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A concert for hurricane relief: a view of humanity

Gaby Velasquez
The Dirty River Boys performed at Ardivino’s Desert Crossing to fundraise for the Salvation Army, with proceeds going to the hurricane relief.

“We never thought about cancelling it.”

Four days after Stephen Paddock opened fire on the crowd attending the Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival in Las Vegas, Ardovino’s Desert Crossing in Sunland Park, N.M., was the site of a country music festival.

The second-annual fundraising concert for the Salvation Army, with proceeds set to go to hurricane relief in the Aransas Pass and Houston areas, had been planned months in advance. The Salvation Army was always going to be the recipient of the proceeds from the free concert, but damage from Hurricane Harvey was too great to ignore.

The concert, held on Oct. 5, four days after the largest mass shooting in United States’ modern history, was sponsored by Sportsman’s Elite, the largest gun store in El Paso, along with the Rudolph family of car dealerships and several other companies.

“We’ve got to make sure that these people, who were at ground zero (for Hurricane Harvey), are able to get some money,” said Don Pendergras, who owns Sportsman’s Elite, and arranged the charity concert. “We’re not sending water, diapers, macaroni and cheese–we’re actually out giving cash to people so that they can pay some bills.”

Fundraising and the hurricane victims were on Pendergras’ mind. Not on his mind, it would seem, was any chance of a similar shooting to the recent Las Vegas massacre happening at his concert.

“We never thought about cancelling it, but what we did was double check all of our security. We have the New Mexico State Police and the Sunland Park Police Department. We have our own security team and DEA sitting right over here in the mountains, along with Customs and Border Patrol,” Pendergras said. “We’re not worried about that.”

“I just said, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way.’”

UTEP alum Abiel Macias has come a long way since graduating with a degree in communication in 2007. Going by Abe Mac, his stage name, he took the stage in the picturesque setting of Ardovino’s Desert Crossing following a brief moment of silence in honor of the victims of the Las Vegas shooting.

During the Vegas shooting, country music superstar Jason Aldean slowly came to the realization that someone was shooting at the music festival while he performed and quickly ran offstage with his band as panic set in throughout the crowd.

No one could blame Mac for being a little nervous about taking the stage on Thursday.

“You just don’t know if people who have bad thoughts get motivated to do stuff,” Mac said. “It just opens up a Pandora’s Box for somebody to get crazy and say, ‘Well, what the hell, I’ll go and do the same thing he did.’ It kind of scares you a little bit.”

Mac said he had even more reason for second thoughts due to messages he received through social media.

“I got about 20 messages on Facebook from people talking about the show and Sportsman’s Elite and stuff,” he said. “I wrote back to a few of them and just said, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way.’ We came out here to show love and support to people.”

Mac said he continues to hope that the aftermath of yet another mass shooting in America will prompt a bipartisan conversation about guns. He also hopes that people will drop the extreme sides of the issue and focus on hearing each other’s take on the issue.

“We’re not gonna back down.”

If there was anybody to be angry at for holding a country concert sponsored by a gun store just after a mass shooting, it would be Pendergras and Matt Neessen, president of Rudolph Chevrolet, the other main sponsor of the event.

Neither could be disliked for long, and both clearly have their hearts in the right place. Pendergras comes across as the rootin’-tootin’ and often funny Sheriff Woody, and Neessen as the larger than life, occasionally serious Buzz Lightyear.

“We’re gonna show people that are gonna try to pull things like (the Las Vegas shooting) that we’re not gonna back down,” Neessen said. “We’re gonna come together, we’re not gonna be affected, we’re not gonna be afraid.”

Just like the rest of the nation, there were a few ways to react to the concert when it wasn’t cancelled. Be afraid and face their fears like Mac or be defiant and stand up to everything and everyone like Neessen and Pendergras.

Either way, it appeared from the crowd on Thursday that not many people chose the third option—staying home.

“We were definitely aware that people may stay home, but you know what? It’s for a good cause,” Neessen said. “So, we’re gonna make sure that everyone here has a good time.”

That good time did not include a previously announced event during the concert. In the lead up to the concert, Pendergras and Sportsman’s Elite had advertised a shotgun giveaway during the show, but during the show, the raffle and giveaway were never mentioned.

“We had discussions on what’s probably not gonna happen.”

Robert Ardovino sat down at a table overlooking the lot that would soon be filled with people, in front of a stage packed full of instruments, lit by neon blue lights. In the background of the stage, a large American flag swayed in the breeze.

As he spoke about the fact that attendance might be down because of the Las Vegas shooting, he acknowledged the fact that delaying or postponing the concert was not an option due to the logistics of everything. It became clear that Ardovino’s views on the subject were slightly different than those of the concert’s sponsors.

“(Pendergras) sells guns for a living and I own guns. Maybe we don’t all see eye to eye on the situation because I think there are definite limits that need to be taken,” Ardovino said. “It’s a very strange situation that we’re all in right now.”

Ardovino likes shooting targets and he doesn’t really hunt. He was also sensitive to the emotions surrounding the event, especially when it came to the shotgun giveaway.

“I don’t know how (Pendergras) is handling it, but I know he’s sensitive to it,” Ardovino said. “We had discussions on what’s probably NOT gonna happen.”

For his part, Pendergras seemed to play everything right the entire night. If anyone was going to criticize the concert’s timing, they were not going to be able to criticize anything else.

“We’re not gonna bring (the raffle) up. We’re gonna release (the winner) over Facebook,” Pendergras said. “We had all of that planned out before (the Las Vegas shooting) happened and it’s just unfortunate.”

Pendergras spoke at length about the measures that should be taken in reference to the Las Vegas shooting by politicians. He said he would like to see more help for those with mental health issues and less “help” from politicians as it relates to gun control.

Two men. Two drastically different opinions. Yet they came together on Thursday to put on a concert in order to help their fellow men in need.

“Sometimes it gets heated.”

Cory Morrow is a big name in Texas country music and he put on an inspired show on Thursday. Morrow had already joined local favorites The Dirty River Boys for a few songs during the middle set of the show, including a Tom Petty song, which really got the crowd moving just a few days after the death of the legendary rocker.

Prior to The Dirty River Boys taking the stage, Pendergras ensured that the local favorites arranged to play a few songs with Morrow during their set. Perhaps this was done as a way to make sure that the crowd stuck around for Morrow after the more popular local act left the stage.

Despite Morrow’s Texas-wide fame, El Pasoans are nothing, if not loyal to their own.

That same loyalty can be seen in the El Paso-born band, originally made up of Marco Gutierrez, Nino Cooper and Travis Stearns. The band has toured for years, added bassist Colton James and they have stuck together despite not always seeing eye to eye.

“Sometimes it gets heated. Sometimes we talk about (politics) and we work through it,” guitarist and singer Gutierrez said. “That’s what I want for everyone in the world to do. We need to be able to talk about it.”

Like Ardovino, Pendergras and most Americans, Gutierrez has a strong opinion on guns and what politicians may or may not be able to do about them.

“I hope we can all come to an agreement. I hope we can reach a middle ground,” Gutierrez said. “We are a country of gun owners and it’s been that way since the founding of our nation. It’s difficult to just turn that off. But, I think it’s also ridiculous to have no holds on everything.”

James, or CJ, as he prefers, is one of the newest members of the band and a frequent debate partner of Gutierrez. He is also an avid shooter and staunch gun rights advocate.

“I love guns. Guns are my life,” CJ said. “I have so many assault rifles at home. It’s like an arsenal.”

CJ acknowledges that his political stance is a little different than the rest of The Dirty River Boys.

“I shy away from (discussing politics),” he said. “I’m pretty much on the opposite end of the spectrum from the rest of my band mates. They’re kind of more like inner city, kind of liberals, gun control people, and I’m more your hardcore, redneck, gun-toting hillbilly that’s like, ‘fuck it, I can’t have enough guns.’”

Guitierrez acknowledged their differences, but pointed out that the differences make The Dirty River Boys what they are.

Just as Pendergras and the many artists did on that Thursday evening, in the shadow of Mount Cristo Rey, healing from the Las Vegas shooting may come from just standing up to our fears and saying that we will set aside our differences and just make beautiful music.

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Jason Green, Contributor
Gaby Velasquez, Photo editor
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A concert for hurricane relief: a view of humanity